Are you heading out tonight to a hallowe’en party or roaming the streets in search of tricks or treats? Perhaps you have donned a hastily thrown together outfit (any bin-bag and masking tape skeletons out there?) or blown the budget on a head-to-toe sexy devil costume complete with tail? Maybe your only contribution this year is a lopsided pumpkin and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” on repeat.
I’m probably more in the last category, as I have never really ‘got’ halloween, finding it overly commercialised and rather superficial, with a tendency for tricks and frights to tip over the boundary between fun high-jinks and insensitive cruel behaviour. I know this year-marker is a long-standing fixture in our culture, but between the bucketfuls of sweets, the flammable scary-fairy costumes and pumpkins rotting on doorsteps two weeks later, it seems to me that this autumnal festivity has lost touch with its core.
So I decided to delve deeper and seek out the beating heart of halloween, to learn more about this celebration of death and darkness and all things spooky, and discover the myriad of traditions old, new and living.
Autumn begins with the equinox at the end of September when the length of day and night is equal. The relatively recent phenomenon of British Summer Time and the twice-yearly altering of clocks has screwed our perspective of time, but it is generally about a month later, around the time of halloween, that we begin to notice the apparent victory of night over day, dark over light. For our ancestors this change marked an important point of the year: the transition from summer to winter.
It is only in more recent era, particularly with the arrival of christianity, that ‘the dark’ became synonymous with all things sinister and evil. It is thought that the celtic cultures for example had a more accepting understanding of the dark, embracing it as another part of the cycle that makes up the rules of life. Without the winter there couldn’t be the spring.
The death of the old sun was a vital to allow the rebirth of the light that would quicken the earth into new life for the continuing pattern of the seasons. Nothing was left to chance however, if the sun was extinguished then perhaps it wouldn’t return. Offerings and even animal sacrifices were made to the gods and goddesses to appease them, and fires lit in solidarity with the sun. At Samhain (now halloween) a central fire would be lit in the village as the people gathered to make their offerings and cast their ‘spells’ for good fortune to see them through the coming months. Pieces of this fire would then be taken home to light the hearths in each of their homes, to be kept alight all winter-long, keeping both a metaphorical sun and the people’s hopes, burning brightly.
All this being said, the ancient cultures’ acceptance and embracing of the dark did not mean they did not fear it.
The dark was the place of the unseen, and therefore the mysterious and potentially the dangerous. It was the void beyond life and the tangible, and so naturally linked with death and the ‘other world’.
As a transition point of the year, the end of a productive and busy season, the gathering in and coming together of Samhain offered an opportunity to pause, to assess, and to look back. What better time would there be to remember friends and loved ones who had passed away or been lost during the past year, a tradition that crossed over from pagan lore into Christian rite as Samhain became overlapped by All Hallows Eve (from which we get the modern term halloween).
This act of remembrance (bear in mind that in some cultures it was thought that dwelling upon thoughts of the dead, or speaking their names could disturb them, drawing their spirits back into the world of the living) and the proximity of the dark and its otherworldliness, contributed to the idea that on this one night of the year the veil between worlds was thin enough to allow ghosts, lost souls and other inhabiters of the unknown, to cross over to haunt the world of the living.
Candles would be lit as a welcoming guiding-light for relatives and peaceful spirits who wished to visit, and there is even a tradition of an extra place being laid at the table to accommodate those in search of company. Not all spirits were considered friendly however, and disguises would be donned either to mask your identity from those that might want to do you harm, or to camouflage you as one of the dead so that unkind phantoms would pass you by in pursuit of the living.
Pumpkins are of course a recent arrival from America, but the idea is much older than settlement of that continent; immigrants to the new land simply adopted the pumpkin due to its availability. Fearful images and grotesque faces would’ve been originally carved on masks, or made as lanterns using turnips and other everyday items, to scare away any roaming spirits intent on mischief and mayhem.
Seen in the context of these historic (and in some homes still very much alive) cultural notions; the time of transition, the growing strength of the dark, the offering of hopes and prayer in the face of uncertain times as cruel winter approached, the proximity of the ‘other-world’ and the conjuring of spirits of unknown intent… the complexity of halloween begins to take on a deeper, more connected meaning.
So whether you call it Samhain, Hallows Eve or Hallowe’en, carry the traditions, hopes and fears of your ancestors forward. Go and light your candles, come together to reflect on a year past and gather your strength in preparation for the long dark months to come, meditate for a moment perhaps on the nature of darkness, place a carved pumpkin on your front step or disguise yourself and hope that mischief passes your door without a sideways glance, and open your heart to the magic and fear woven into this dark night.